I have DNFed Stephen King.
DNF meaning, of course, “did not finish” – a book review in itself.
Goodreads has become one of my go-to apps, for keeping obsessive track of what I read each year and how long it took me and what order I read it in. Some people shelve the books they didn’t finish onto their DNF shelf – but I prefer to just remove it altogether.
I would call myself a Stephen King fan. I have called myself that. On this blog. At one point, eight years ago, I wrote a whole post about how I had collected almost all of his books, and what did I still have left to get?
I’ve been keeping up with his recent work, although it hasn’t had the same kind of pull for me that some of his earlier novels have. I’ve read The Stand probably a half dozen times. Ditto It. Ditto Pet Sematary and Misery and Rose Madder and Carrie and The Shining. But ask me to tell you the plot of Mr. Mercedes (2014) and I’m coming up blank.
Before I abruptly dropped out (long story) of my skype book club, one of the books we read was Stephen King’s The Outsider, published in 2018. During that read, I realized how often he has written sexual violence, particularly against children, particularly against young boys, and I let myself think about how uncomfortable it makes me.
There have been other things I’ve had to stop reading lately – particularly dystopian, post-apocalyptic stuff. I just can’t handle it. It stresses me out too much. And I think, having young kids, I just don’t want to read that kind of violence against kids. Much like my experience reading “Guts” last October, I would just prefer not to put that kind of negative energy in the air around myself.
This year, Stephen King’s new book, The Institute, came out. It also came out on audiobook, narrated by Santino Fontano, who is the voice of Frozen‘s Prince Hans, and played Greg Serrano on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. He also narrates the audiobook of Caroline Kepnes’ You, which recently became a Netflix series. He’s also a dreamboat, and a good audiobook narrator. Good at voices. So I thought this would be a shoe-in for me: the Santino Fontana-narrated audiobook of Stephen King’s latest novel. I spent one of my credits on it and downloaded it.
Between downloading it and starting to listen to it, Stephen King tweeted something about diversity in art, which landed him a lot of backlash.
It was in a larger conversation about reading or viewing things with an affirmative action kind of perspective – to actively seek out art from less-heard voices and to put a value on raising those things up. He disagreed with that idea. And maybe what he’s saying makes sense here, like sure, there’s a world in which the entire playing field is level and you judge everything only on its own merits. But that’s not the world we currently live in. So I think it was short-sighted of him, a wildly successful older white man, to say he would never consider diversity when deciding on what book or movie should be nominated for an award.
Anyway. I started thinking about all his work, and the way certain characters are treated (or mistreated). I know times are a-changing, but it still hit me that there are some outdated characters and behaviors, even in his recent works. So when, in The Institute, I met a character who was a young woman of color, I paid attention to how it just all rang really false for me.
There have been other authors for me in the last year or so, where I’ve been a rabid fan as a teenager and 20-something, and rereading them now feels empty. There’s almost always some kind of casual phobia to their writing – whether it’s homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, or even just misogyny – I just can’t do it anymore.
The Institute audiobook is 19 hours long. I could spend 38 commutes listening to The Institute and cringing at characterizations that are rubbing me the wrong way – or I could listen to one of the many other books or podcasts that can help expand my mind and teach me something. So, I DNFed it. The year 2020 is going to be about cutting out things that aren’t good for me, and embracing things that are. And not being apologetic about it.